IMA 504 – Ethical Issues – Eirik Bjorno

Social Media Ethical Paper

Facebook has grown into one of the most powerful media conglomerates in the world. It started out as a social network at Harvard, and now it is worth billions of dollars. When Facebook is based on the users contributions and activities, is it right for Facebook to take advantage of their users by selling their photos and information and keep all their revenues themselves?

The social media market keeps growing every year. In 2012 only eight consumer social networks had publically available revenue run rates for 2013, on average, they’re forecasting $3.7 billion. In total, they’re estimating revenues of $8.3 billion.  Last year, in 2012, ten of the consumer social network sites had publicly available revenues, which amount of $10.7 billion global revenues, averaged across the ten is $1.7 billion. The growth is simply remarkable.

But how can these free social media sites make this amount of money? It all tracks back to Ad revenues. In late July 2013 data showed that 89% of all online advertisers use free social media marketing, while 75 % use paid social media advertising. The report also looked at how many of the advertisers were going to raise their budget for social media marketing the next year; and the result was that 69% (!) of the current advertisers were planning to increase their budgets the upcoming year. (Clarke)

So from talking in percent, lets look at the actual numbers. According to Lori Andrews Facebook made $ 3.1 billion in advertisement revenue last year. But that is not even considered a noteworthy amount compared some other Internet Service providers. Google made $ 36.5 billion in revenue in 2011. With these numbers in mind, we need to realize that Google, Facebook ad twitter don’t have a storage full of valuable objects. There are no electronic gadgets; no luxury cars, airplanes or Rolex watches. The only inventory they have is our personal information. Our photos. Our Emails. Even our relationship status. That’s what the online service providers are selling. That’s why their advertisement revenues are so high. They are selling information about us so their advertisers hit their demographic better. (Andrews)

We have all experienced an ad for new headphones pops up on Facebook five minutes after we searched for it on amazon. Facebook let’s advertisers access their database, point out exactly who of the 850 million users they want to hit, and BOOM their sales skyrockets. It is effective. With Google it is even worse. If you mention the word “soccer-cleats” in an email to your coach, expect advertisements for the Adidas Predators in your browser. Google access all you personal Email and sell the information to advertisers who are more than willing to spend some extra dollars to hit the right target group. (Andrews)

One thing is the advertisement. It can actually be helpful some times, and you might end up doing a good deal. But the bits and bytes about your personal life can easily be used against you in certain situations. Software producer Lexis Nexis has a product called Accruint for Law Enforcement; this simply gives the government information about what people do on social media sites. Immigration Services has several examples where they scrutinize photos and status updates on Facebook to reveal sham marriages. The immigration agents simply use an algorithm developed in a study by Lars Backstrom, a senior engineer at Facebook and Jon Kleinberg, a professor of computer science at Cornell, to tell who you are really dating; Backstrom and Kleinbergs algorithm only use the to, from, bcc and timestamp in your emails and Facebook messages to tell if you really are in a relationship. “The best indicator of who is paired with whom comes from how closely their mutual contacts are connected, something the researchers call “dispersion”. By measuring dispersion, Backstrom and Kleinberg were able to predict relationships with more than 50 percent accuracy.” (Dalenberg)

More commonly is it when employers sometimes decide whether to hire people based on their social media accounts. One study states that 70 % of recruiters in the United States have rejected a candidate based on their profile on social media sites. You can obviously defend this by saying it is your own responsibility to clean up their social media profiles to avoid this, and it is a valid point.

Harder is it to defend the practice of stereotyping in data aggregation. You might experience your application for credit being declined not based on your own credits or finances, but on aggregated data – what other people who fit your “profile” have done.  If soccer players or dog owners are more likely to renege on their credit-card bills, then the fact that you’ve looked at soccer ads or posted a photo of their three dogs might cause a data aggregator to classify you as less credit-worthy.

Are all these practices ok? Is it ok that Google, Facebook, Twitter and others are taking advantage of us? They take advantage of our personal life. One thing is the cyberbullying, the Internet frauds and the dangerous information accessible to us on the Internet, but when we try to be as careful as we possibly can we still might be in risk of being damaged. The government takes legal action based on what we tell friends and family online. I don’t think it is ok, and I think it is ethical wrong by the Internet service providers to share the information they way they are doing.

On the other side, are they legally allowed to do it? Yes indeed. When you sign up to use any Internet service you are required to accept a disclaimer. If you don’t accept it, you are simply not granted access to the product. All providers of online services make sure they cover everything in as complicated language as possible, preferably with a size 6 font to make it even harder to understand. Below is a part of Google’s disclaimer:

“When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones. This license continues even if you stop using our Services.” (Arora)

We are selling our soul to Google when accepting these terms, but do we have a choice? Google have by far the best service, we wont be able to use Google Docs, Gmail, Google Chat etc. if we don’t accept. With these services being the best available on the market, most of us are willing to accept these terms.

Now, after accepting that this is the reality. There is not much we can do to stop this practice from happening. Shouldn’t these companies who makes millions of dollars of our personal information at least give something back to us? I’m not talking about dollar bills raining over Manhattan, but what about charity programs. How much are Google, Facebook or Twitter given away to charity a year?

Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg was according to CNN the nations second-biggest charity donor in 2012, with only Warren Buffet over him on the list. Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan gave $498.8 million to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation; a simply outstanding gesture from Zuckerberg, who apparently is worth 12 billion dollars. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation issues grants for multiple causes in the San Francisco area. In 2012, its charitable causes ranged from funds for victims of the California wildfires to groups providing food and shelter to the needy. What I specially would like to endorse Zuckerberg for though, is the $100 million donation he gave to public schools in Newark New Jersey in 2010. That was his first big splash in the philanthropy space when he announced the donation live on Oprah. (Gross)

Google decides to give back in a different way. In 2011 they gave over $100 million to a whole slew of charitable organizations all over the world. Those organizations included ones that focus on education for girls, ending modern day slavery and human trafficking, as well as bringing more jobs to third world countries. (Olanoff)

Also Google co-founder Sergey Brin and his wife Anne Wojcicki put in $223 million into their own Brin Wojcicki Foundation. The establishment donates to a number of causes that, in 2012, included women’s and environmental issues and a foundation dedicated to curbing poverty. The couple also donated nearly $33 million last year to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Microsoft Co-founder Paul Allen added another $309 million to the pool, when he donated mostly to the Allen Institute of Brain Science.  (Gross)

As we see it is not small number we are dealing with when it comes to donations from tech executives, and it is clear that they focus on giving back to the community. But it is enough? Looking at the numbers going in and out from these massive web based companies we can see that their activities in the philanthropy area is only a very small part of their total revenues. I understand it is a business, and they don’t have to give away any of their money, but isn’t that the right thing to do? They take advantage of the people because they can, and because there is no law stopping them. Before I wrote this article I would easily say that it is disgraceful how Facebook, Google and Instagram take our information and photos to gain even more income.

However, looking at the numbers it is hard to say that Facebook and Google are not aware of their social responsibilities. Donations of the amount they have made are truly amazing, and will hopefully make a difference in the areas where they are spent. Still, I would like to see more specific donations, like Zuckerbergs donation to schools in New Jersey. When money is plowed into major general organizations there is a tendency that a lot of the money is spent on administrative expenses. For instance donations to The Silicon Valley Community Foundation is among many looked at as a ticket into the inner circle of the financial elite, rather than money spent to help others.

To conclude I would like to state that if Facebook, Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Google keep sharing their wealth with people, organizations and areas in society who needs it, they show their users respect. I would like to see generous donations to the executive’s heart matters, rather than donations to their friend’s charity funds. It is possible for the general public to change their mind about their information being shared, if they get something in return. It is like taxes; you pay the price for the bigger picture to grow better.


Andrews, Lori. Facebook Is Using You. 04 February 2012. The New York Times Company. 03 12 2013.

Arora, Nigam. Be Prepeared To Sell Your Soul If You Use Google. 27 01 2012. 02 12 2013.

Clarke, Tara. How Do Social Media Companies Make Money? 04 12 2013. Money Map Press. 01 12 2013.

Dalenberg, Alex. Amorous Facebook algorithm unlocks the secrets of love and fake marriage. 30 10 2013. American City Business Journals. 02 12 2013.

Gross, Doug. Facebook’s Zuckerberg is nation’s No. 2 charitable donor. 12 02 2013. Cable News Network. 02 12 2013.

Olanoff, Drew. In 2011, Google gave back $100 million to various charitable organizations. 11 12 2011. The Next Web. 01 12 2013.

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